You would think that with national park websites, blogs and Facebook, no one would need to have a paper-and-ink guidebook in hand. But the National Geographic Guide to National Parks of the United States, 7th Edition is the national park lover's wish book. I hold it just like my great-grandmother might have held the Sears catalog of a hundred years ago, looking at the beautiful photographs and maps, and dreaming.
The book, which addresses just the 58 "national parks" in the National Park System, is broken down into geographic regions. Each region opens with an essay and a map that highlights the national parks in that section of the country.
At the beginning of each park description, you learn when the park was established and its size, information that is difficult to find on some park websites. For each national park, a short essay describes the major attraction. For example, Mammoth Cave is the world's longest known cave system, which I interpret as the reason why it became a national park.
For each park, there's the obligatory How to Get There and When to Go sections. How To Visit explains the main highlights.
In some cases, the editors makes choices for readers by not listing all existing options.
For instance, at Mammoth Cave National Park it suggests the Frozen Niagara Tour, which, at a quarter-mile, is the easiest cave tour. While it notes the Grand Avenue Tour, 4 miles with a snack bar stop, may be difficult for some visitors, the text doesn't touch on all of the cave tours offered at the park.
This chapter does emphasize the importance of good shoes and a jacket -- it's cool down in the cave, usually about 54 degrees Fahrenheit. A spelunking tour at the park also is described, and so are a few hikes above ground.
As with all park chapters, the Information and Activities page for Mammoth Cave National Park discusses the nuts and bolts of visiting the park: details on the visitor center, entrance fee, pet rules, campgrounds and backpacking. This section also lists accommodations inside the park and a few close by, the latter being very useful.
A page on nearby excursions lists Daniel Boone National Forest and Cumberland Gap National Historical Park and their distances from Mammoth Cave.
For each park, there's a full-page color map, which is a lot easier to read than the one on the web.
Skipping through the book, I want to see what I can learn about Capitol Reef National Park in Utah, a park that I'll visit soon. The opening essay explains that the unifying geographic feature of Capitol Reef is the Waterpocket Fold. For a hundred miles its parallel ridges rise from the desert like the swell of giant waves rolling toward shore. With a full day planned, I'll take the Fremont River and Scenic Drive mentioned in the text, and do several short hikes. Fruita, the remnants of Mormon pioneer village, also intrigues me.
Under the Special Advisories heading, they suggest that you always carry water -- good idea.
Next I page over to my dream national park destination -- National Park of American Samoa in the South Pacific. This park is described as Five volcanic islands and two coral atolls. Samoan villages offer a few guest facilities. It takes 14 hours from California, including a layover at the Honolulu airport, to get to Pago Pago.
Sadly, the description of what to do in this tropical setting is uncharacteristically thin. There are just two pages assigned to this wonderful park. The Information and Activities section is omitted. In the How to Visit section, the reader is referred to the park's website; something that's not a click away in a book.
But maybe you don't need to do anything in American Samoa other than to walk the beach, observe tropical plants, and talk to locals. Missing from the text, but something I picked up on a website, is that even though American Samoa is in the United States, the flight to get you there is considered an international flight, and American visitors need their passports.
A different dream - Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.
Climb practically any ridge in the heart of the park and you'll see a dozen glacial cirques side by side.
In the How to Visit section for this park, the text emphasizes that you need to "allow enough time to savor the subtle beauty of this vast wilderness. A combination river-hiking trip offers the best of both.” With 8.5 million acres, that's a lot of wilderness.
Special advisories states "to bring all supplies with you. Firearms may be carried for protection."
Hmmm, maybe I'll use an outfitter.
The chapter also suggests that you call Bettles Ranger Station before planning a trip, as they'll have lists of outfitters and guides that operate in the park. Of course, you could find that information on the park's website, too.
After reading these chapters, I'm beginning to think that the logistics of planning a trip to Gates of the Arctic somehow makes Samoa somehow more feasible.
But as I flip through the book, I see another set of parks: The Why haven’t I been there yet? group.
Cuyahoga Valley, south of Cleveland, has secluded trails through rugged gorges that seem far removed from civilization; vistas of tree-covered hills … and marshes where beaver, herons, and wood ducks thrive. You can hike, take a scenic railroad, and visit Brandywine Falls.
For the most part, each park mentioned in this guide has the same heading and categories, but there are some omissions. The Pets section is missing from Great Smoky Mountains National Park and several other parks. Many visitors don't realize that pets are not allowed on hiking trails, causing a lot of grief when they get to the park.
The number of miles of hiking trails for each park also would be useful, but the book is not a hiking guide. The book gives priority to drives through the parks.
And that's the beauty of the Guide to National Parks. It's not only to learn practical information about the parks you plan to visit but to dream about other parks and maybe turn these dreams into reality. And when I ever get to any of these parks, you'll read about it here at the Traveler.
Traveler footnote: If this book appeals to you, you can help the Traveler by buying it through the Amazon link above, as we get a teeny commission on sales from our site.
Amazon Detail : Product Description
Packed with more color photographs (380) and detailed, color maps (80) than any other parks guidebook on the market, this handy, practical, guide, completely updated for the 2012 edition, offers comprehensive information on the crown jewels of the national park system--the 58 scenic national parks that conserve and protect the flora and fauna in some of our nation's last wilderness areas. This guide helps travelers design custom trips, depending on the time and interests they have.
The parks are grouped region by region so that vacationers can plan trips to one or more central location. Each chapter is introduced by a map and a geographical profile, followed by the parks in alphabetical order. Individual parks start with a portrait of the natural wonders available, their history, and the ecological setting and stresses they face. A practical "How to Get There" follows with suggestions on when best to visit and a "How to Visit" section with advice on which activities to engage in, how much time to provide for each, and how to savor the beauty of the place. After the descriptions, each park has an "Information & Activities" page with detailed visitor information, including the location of the visitor centers, the fees, pet guidance, special advisories, camping, and lodging details. Suggested brief, nearby excursions are provided to encourage the traveler to explore beyond the park boundaries.
This update includes the latest information on the 2009 Tsunami which devastated America Samoa National Park, information on road changes that resulted from the recent flooding in Olympic National Park, and changes in Arches National Park, including the collapse of Wall Arch in late 2008. The new edition also has 200 new photos by noted nature photographer Phil Schermeister. These pictures, many of which have never been published before, reflect the beauty and grandeur of our national treasures, while the accompanying text, written by experienced National Geographic writers who have traveled the parks, is full of personal, useful, and practical information.